The FCC should not hang up on low-income disaster survivors
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For Americans who can afford reliable phone service, help surviving a natural disaster is just a phone call away. Individuals in the path of a storm can dial 211 to get answers to non-emergency questions such as the location of shelters and evacuation areas. After the storm has passed, 2-1-1 provides access to disaster resources including food and housing assistance, crisis counseling, and health and human services. But for those unable to afford voice or broadband services, the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) must do more to ensure access.

In the past two years, the trained experts at 2-1-1 have answered more than 13 million phone calls and almost 1 million texts, web chats, and emails. Staffed with community resource specialists who are familiar with the varying needs of local communities, the hotline is a vital source of information for consumers during and after a disaster. The most common assistance provided to callers is help remaining in their homes and covering the cost of utilities.

In California, 2-1-1 callers impacted by the wildfires can access a wide range of information, including how and where to apply for federal disaster assistance. Low-income Californians in the path of the fires can also use their Lifeline-enabled smartphones to download the CalFIRE Wildfire Tips app to obtain additional information on when to evacuate, how to evacuate, and what to bring with them.

In Puerto Rico, survivors of Hurricanes Irma and Maria who dialed 211 reached the Esteban F. Bird Information and Referral Center, a service of the United Way of Puerto Rico. The Center uses a database to gather information on more than 4,300 agencies that can help survivors--allowing volunteers to connect Puerto Ricans with the non-profit or federal agency best-suited to meet their needs.

But for too many low-income Americans who are unable to afford voice and broadband services, the resources are out of reach. That is why the federal Lifeline program is so critical. It serves as a gateway to 2-1-1 and other resources for low-income consumers.

Created in 1985, the Lifeline affordable voice and broadband internet program enables more than 10 million low-income veterans, older Americans, and families with children to have affordable voice and broadband internet access. Having enjoyed bipartisan support for decades, the Lifeline program and its low-income subscribers have recently found themselves at risk--along with affordable access to 2-1-1 resources.

In a recent suite of proposals, the FCC proposed removing as many as 70 percent of Lifeline subscribers from their current providers by stripping wireless resellers, companies that lease use of the communications grid, of the modest $9.25 monthly subsidy with no assurance that there will be any Lifeline carriers left to serve these customers.

And there’s the rub. The large landline companies have been leaving the Lifeline program. If subscribers can’t find an affordable provider, they risk dropping off the communications grid and losing access to essential resources and services that they desperately need to rebuild their lives.

The FCC’s shortsighted proposals don’t benefit the major telecom companies who don’t choose to serve Lifeline customers, and they don’t benefit the subscribers who may struggle to find a new provider willing to take them on. In some areas, wireless resellers are the Lifeline program’s only participants and the FCC has no proposed solution that keeps them connected.

In 2000, the FCC valued dial-in community information and referral services enough to reserve the 211 dialing code for nationwide use. Today, the FCC should continue to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to providing a critical connection between all individuals and families affected by natural disasters and the community-based organizations and government agencies in the best position to help.

Instead of pursuing proposals that will limit the reach and effectiveness of Lifeline, the FCC must strengthen the Lifeline program and commit to keeping low-income consumers connected through robust, affordable voice and broadband service. Lifeline can ensure the most vulnerable in our society can access the information and resources they desperately need during catastrophic disasters.

Olivia Wein is a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. She represents the interests of low-income clients at the federal and state level on energy and utility issues.